For years, writers, scientists and entrepreneurs have shown us visions of our future relationships with computers and robots. These vary from the devastation of autonomous robots annihilating us, to the marvels of superhuman enhancement in robot suits. While the Terminator and Iron Man concepts push those ideas to the extreme, they highlight a clear choice in our use of technology. Should we aim for total automation with the target of greater safety and higher efficiency? Or should we aspire to augmentation – using technology to enhance our abilities without replacing us? As artificial intelligence and robotics mature enough to become integrated into everyday life, we need to start making this choice. We need to choose wisely, or we might just automate ourselves and the natural world out of existence.
Humans have always been fascinated by automation. Centuries ago, mechanical creations called automatons were constructed to mimic musicians playing, birds singing, or animals moving. Much of the Industrial Revolution was premised on the idea that automation is better: fabrics could be woven faster and cheaper. Never mind the pollution or the awful working conditions – the products are so much more affordable!
The idea continues in our factories today, where everything that can be automated is automated. Car factories are the largest adopters of robots, and today all welding and painting is done by robots, with ambitions for entire vehicles to soon be built automatically. And while robots have been around for several decades, the last 10 years have seen an explosion in artificial intelligence (and specifically methods such as machine learning). These advanced computer algorithms inspired by the way the brain works provide the latest way we can perform automation.
We can use artificial intelligence to drive our vehicles, to design products, even to compose music or make art. Artificial intelligence will soon be able to imitate our images and sounds perfect, meaning that actors and performers can be computer-generated. Artificial intelligence can generate text in any style and content, so writing can be automated. It can understand our patterns of behavior and influence us automatically – enabling the marketeers’ dream of encouraging us to purchase or vote in ways we otherwise might not.
While automation is a commonly touted goal by those developing such technologies, it takes a certain genius to imagine something better. Instead of artificial intelligence, the idea of augmenting our own intelligence with technology was first proposed in 1960 by an American psychologist and computer scientist called Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider, in an important article titled ‘Mancomputer symbiosis’. Licklider went on to help create the modern computing world as we know it, from the ARPANET (which later became the internet) to graphical user interfaces. His ideas were revolutionary, for he believed that the new computer technology should be used for ‘intelligence amplification’ – not automation.
His influence was vast and as computer technologies grew more advanced, most software was created to amplify our abilities. A word processor helps us write better, it doesn’t write for us. A computer-aided design (CAD) package helps us design, it doesn’t create designs for us. Likewise in our vehicles, technologies now exist to help us park, avoid collisions and keep us safe. The whole philosophy of augmented intelligence is to put humans first, and technology second.
And here’s where we hit the turning point in history. Those who favour automation are increasingly squeezing the augmented intelligence solutions out. We’ve now got the technology to do it, so why not? If my word processor can check spelling and grammar, why not let it reword the whole sentence? Or write the entire piece? If my car can avoid a collision, why not let it drive? If my art package can blur the background of an image, why not let it create a new background? Or a new image? If my medical software can suggest drugs, why not let it diagnose and treat me? Those who favor automation always use the same arguments: it’s cheaper, more efficient, faster and better. But do these arguments always hold water?
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